1886: Joseph Jackson and James Wasson, at Fort Smith

Add comment April 23rd, 2013 Headsman


St. Louis Globe-Democrat, January 31, 1886

America’s most notorious “hanging judge” Isaac Parker issued the sentences resulting in this date’s double hanging at Fort Smith, Ark.

A much more prodigious body count had been ordered initially by the court, but clemencies straight from the hand of U.S. President (and former hangman) Grover Cleveland averted five of seven death sentences on their eve of execution. All the killers under sentence, spared or no, committed their murders in Indian Country.

In February, 1886, seven men were sentenced to be hung on April 23, 1886, but before that day arrived the sentences of all but two had been commuted. The two unfortunates were Joseph Jackson, a negro, convicted of killing his wife at Oak Lodge, Choctaw Nation, on March 9, 1885, and James Wasson, a white man, who participated in the murder of Henry Martin in 1872, but was not apprehended until he took a hand in the killing of a man named Watkins in 1884.* (Source)

Jackson slashed his own throat with the shard of a vase in an unsuccessful bid to cheat the hangman, and sported a terrible gash on his neck when he hanged.

* According to the Atchison (Ks.) Daily Globe of April 30, 1885, Watkins was a cattle baron, whose widow wife then put a $1,000 price on Wasson’s head. The killer’s arrest ensued promptly. Although Wasson hanged for the earlier murder and not for that of Watkins, the aggrieved Texan woman “was here [at Fort Smith] every term of court after Wasson was brought in, and employed counsel to assist the District Attorney in prosecuting him, having, it is said, spent over $7,000 in bringing him to justice.” (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 24, 1886.)

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1875: Six in Fort Smith under Hanging Judge Isaac Parker

7 comments September 3rd, 2011 Headsman

I have ever had the single aim of justice in view … ‘Do equal and exact justice,’ is my motto, and I have often said to the grand jury, ‘Permit no innocent man to be punished, but let no guilty man escape.’

Judge Isaac Parker

On this date in 1875, the most famous — or infamous, depending on your perspective — “hanging judge” of the American West dropped the trap on his noosing career with his first six hangings at Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Isaac Parker, around the time he arrived at Fort Smith

Isaac Parker had parlayed a legal career in Missouri into a congressional seat, when the fall of the Arkansas Republican party’s fortunes late in Reconstruction swept him out of office in 1874.

No problem: his co-partisan president, Ulysses S. Grant, appointed Parker to a federal judgeship in neighboring Arkansas. It’s upon that renowned tenure that the man’s reputation, uh, hangs.

Parker arrived at Fort Smith on May 4, 1875, the youngest federal judge in the west and a man whose jurisdiction included the lawless Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

This expanse of land, the final destination of the Trail of Tears, had once been preserved for tribes forcibly “removed” from eastern North America.

But by the post-Civil War years, the frontier was sweeping past on iron wheels … and as long as Indian Territory remained (mostly) protected from white settlement, it remained a sparsely-populated refuge for outlaws.

Pandemonium in the Territory was only exacerbated by the Fort Smith court’s reputation for corruption and inefficiency; the office was open for Parker’s appointment because his predecessor had resigned to avoid impeachment.

Judge Isaac Parker came to clean up the place.

Fort Smith was an unusual portfolio for a federal judge. While most of Parker’s colleagues were confined to the tedium of interstate civil litigation, Parker was the court of first call for many regular criminal cases in the Indian Territory which in other jurisdictions would have been a state matter. He estimated in 1885 Congressional testimony that seven-eighths of his caseload came from Indian Territory.*

And in those cases he quickly established himself a reputation for severity.

“I never hanged a man,” Parker said of himself later in life. “The law hanged him. I was only its instrument.”

But make yourself the law’s instrument to the tune of 79 hangings, and folks are bound to sit up and take notice.


“they nearly hung me for stealin’ a horse
in Fort Smith Arkansas.

Judge Parker said guilty and the gavel came down
just like a cannon shot …”

At his court’s very first sitting in May 1875, Parker death-sentenced a murderer — Daniel Evans, who came straight from frontier central casting and had murdered a man for his boots.

As that year unfolded, he added enough condemned men to the bowels of the miserable jail nicknamed “Hell on the Border” — for an eight-strong hanging date to christen September.

One of the eight had his sentence commuted due to youth.

One was shot trying to escape.

And the other six were the debut crop for the mass-occupancy gallows that Parker ordered constructed at Fort Smith. (Its capacity was a full dozen.)


Modern replica at Fort Smith — today a national historic site — of Judge Parker’s gallows. (cc) image from photoguyinmo.

The clientele was six unconnected murderers, committing various atrocities for various motives and aptly embodying the region’s ethnic diversity.

  • Evans, white
  • James Moore, white
  • Samuel Fooy, quarter Cherokee
  • Smoker Mankiller, Cherokee
  • Edmond Campbell, black
  • John Whittington, white

And the audience? Five thousand or so reportedly on hand in Fort Smith this date, plus a national media audience … and posterity deep into the second century since this sturdy magistrate donned his first black cap and set about putting chaos into order with a rope in his hand.


New York Tmes, September 4, 1875.

Whatever one might have to say about his methods, Parker presents a magnetic personality, a figure so truly of his own time and place that he obligingly died just weeks after his court was finally relieved of its Oklahoman jurisdiction in 1896. He’d never hang around to jolt our anachronism meter by weighing in on trench warfare or cubism.

Parker is undoubtedly a more layered figure than his “hanging judge” reputation would suggest, and even his life’s project to bring his unruly jurisdiction to heel was more complicated than just being a hardass. (He had a significant administrative challenge to manage his chronically underfunded court, and he needed to foster the sense of communal reciprocity and legal integrity that would encourage fellow-citizens to turn up for jury duty and witness testimony that make the law’s everyday business possible.) The judge was famous for the long hours he kept, and capital cases were never more than a tiny fraction of his work.

Parker was notorious (slash-beloved, again depending on perspective) for his prosecution-friendly courtrooms, but even the tough sentences he handed down came in his mind from a place of tough love. He wrote late in life that

not one of [those he suffered to long prison terms for violent crimes], no matter how depraved, had entirely lost that better part of human nature …

The object of punishment is to revive, that in some cases, almost extinct spark, to lift the man up, to stamp out his bad nature and wicked disposition, that his better and God given traits may assert themselves.*

Still, whether you prefer him as the stern avatar of law on an outlaw plain or bloodthirsty yahoo, Parker’s ready amenability to latter-day Hollywood tropes will surely maintain his popularity in the cultural rookery of wild west cutouts.

Among numerous other reference points, the novel True Grit, and the 1969 and 2010 films based on it, use Judge Parker’s Fort Smith as the heroine’s embarkation point — with her dangerous journey carrying her into the untamed Indian Territory on his doorstep.

Pat Hingle’s “Judge Fenton” (from “Fort Grant”) in the Clint Eastwood western Hang ‘Em High also shows an unmistakable debt to the Judge Parker persona.

A few books about Judge Parker

Spare a thought, too, for the man operating the ropes and levers this date.

George Maledon, named Fort Smith’s official hangman just a couple of years before Isaac Parker’s appointment, would enforce the Hanging Judge’s hanging sentences into the 1890s: 60-plus executions in all, plus five other escaping prisoners he gunned down, all in a day’s work for an Arkansas lawman.

Maledon has a sad coda to this story, which wasn’t so upbeat to begin with.

The year after the veteran hangman hung up his hood and opened a grocery store, Maledon’s daughter was murdered. The bereaved father’s friend Judge Parker, still on the bench at that time, condemned the killer to die in a case we’ll suggest might have warranted a recusal by present-day standards. Nevertheless, a successful appeal balked Maledon’s successor of the malefactor, and the disgusted ex-executioner got his species of payback by taking the accoutrement of his late profession on the road as a traveling act.

There, under the billing of “the Prince of Hangmen,” Maledon lectured and exhibited old hanging ropes and pictures of the outlaws they had choked.

People of all classes flocked to the show grounds, crowded about the lecturer and filled the tent, viewing the gruesome relics and listening to the old hangman’s recital of soul-stirring events as he pointed out the…instruments of his vocation. (Source)

* See Mary Stolerg, “Politician, Populist, Reformer: A Reesamination of ‘Hanging Judge’ Isaac C. Parker”, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 1988

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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1885: James Arcene, the youngest juvenile offender hanged in the US?

2 comments June 26th, 2010 Headsman

(Thanks to Caitlin at Vast Public Indifference for the guest post -ed.)

On June 26, 1885, two Cherokee men — James Arcene and William Parchmeal — were hanged at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Moments before their deaths, both men made statements, though it is unlikely that their last words were intelligible to many witnesses at the military outpost, owing to the heavy rain and the fact that Parchmeal spoke little English.* Under the eye of Federal Judge Isaac Parker, the notorious “Hanging Judge” of the old Southwest, Arcene and Parchmeal had their limbs bound and their faces covered before being “launched into eternity.”**

In February, Arcene and Parchmeal had been convicted of a murder committed 13 years previously. On November 25, 1872, someone had killed a Swedish immigrant named Henry Feigel on the road near Fort Gibson in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The case remained unsolved for over a decade.

In 1884, 12 years after Feigel’s death, a U.S. Deputy Marshall named Andrews arrested Arcene and Parchmeal in connection with the murder. Though documents describing the evidence used to obtain the arrest warrant are not readily available, Andrews was able to convince a judge (probably the same Judge Parker who presided over the trial) that the trail had not gone cold after so many years. Arcene “denied having knowledge of the killing,” but Parchmeal made a statement through an interpreter “admitting being present, but said that he was there under duress and that Arcine did the killing.”†

After both men were convicted, Arcene made a confession stating that he had “shot [Feigel] six times, then both took rocks and mashed the man’s head” before dragging him off the road and robbing him of his boots and 25 cents. Judge Parker sentenced both men to hang.

At first glance, there is little to distinguish this case from the 77 other executions presided over by Judge Parker during his tenure at Fort Smith.‡ Parker had been appointed to the bench in the hope that he would make Indian Territory feel the full might of the federal government, and he did not disappoint. According to one chronicler of the Fort Smith court under Judge Parker,

“Tried, found guilty as charged, sentenced,” was the tale repeated until the mere fact of arrest meant almost certain conviction. The sentence “To die on the gallows” was passed upon more men here than anywhere in history. So numerous were the executions [Parker] ordered and so commonplace the thunderous crash of the gallows trap that street urchins playing outside the old walls would gleefully shout: “There goes another man to hell with his boots on!”

Glenn Shirley, Law West of Fort Smith: A History of Frontier Justice In The Indian Territory, 1834-1896 (1957), 79.

But this execution was peculiar in one significant detail: James Arcene claimed to have been “only a boy [about] 10 or 12 years old” at the time of the murder.† If true, he was one of the youngest criminals in American history to have his crime punished by a federally-sanctioned execution.

It is difficult to verify James Arcene’s age with any degree of certainty. Census records for Indian Territory in the 1870s and 1880s are spotty at best, and few other vital records survive. It is possible that Arcene may have hoped to obtain a pardon by falsely pleading youth, but he did not revise his statement, even when it became apparent that it would do him no good. We may never know how old James Arcene really was — all we can know is that he claimed to have been a child in 1872 and that Judge Parker ignored this information and sentenced the adult who stood before him.§

If James Arcene was a juvenile offender, he looked very much like the other children and adolescents executed in the United States since the era of the American Revolution. Those offenders executed for crimes committed before the age of 18 have disproportionately been African American, Native American, or Hispanic teenagers who have committed crimes against white victims. This is true of the 20th century as well as the 19th: of the 22 juvenile offenders executed for murder in the US between 1976 and 2004, 77% had killed a white victim, though only 50% of homicides perpetrated by juvenile offenders involved a white victim. As of 2004, 9 of the last 10 juvenile offenders executed in Texas, the state responsible for 59% of all juvenile executions, were black or Hispanic. (Figures from the Death Penalty Information Center.)

In March of 2005, the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 ruling in Roper v. Simmons declaring that states could no longer execute criminals who had committed their crimes while under the age of 18.

* See “Murder for Money,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 27 June 1885 on rain, and “Hanged on the Gallows,” New York Times, 27 June 1885 on Parchmeal’s need for an interpreter.

** “Murder for Money,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 27 June 1885.

† “Hanged on the Gallows,” New York Times, 27 June 1885.

‡ Judge Parker sentenced 156 men and 4 women to death. Of these, 79 were actually executed, the rest having died in prison, had their sentences commuted, or were pardoned.

§ It should be noted that many books make the erroneous claim that Arcene was 10 at the time of his execution. This is not the case — all available primary documents agree that he was an adult in 1885. I made this same mistake in my earlier guest post on the case of Hannah Ocuish, having relied on Dean J. Champion’s The American Dictionary of Criminal Justice: Key Terms and Major Court Cases (2005).

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